Tag Archives: Science

Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything

In August I was at the Edinburgh TV festival being lectured by Eric Schmidt about the need to end the divide in the UK society between ‘luvvies’ and ‘boffins’. As Schmidt argued, ‘there’s been a drift to humanities’ with the result, ‘engineering and science aren’t championed’.

This has meant the UK’s been left behind:

‘The UK is home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice. (It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyons’ chain of tea shops.) Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK’

Brian Cox picked up the theme the next day in a Q&A. He pointed out that while no politician on Newsnight would say ‘I know nothing about economics’ – even though that might be an honest admission –  all too often we hear the same sentiment expressed about science. ‘It should be socially unacceptable to know nothing about science’, he said. (Considering David Cameron claimed last Sunday that the British invented DNA, Brian Cox has got a lot of work to do.)

For me, it was the theme of the festival. So on the train journey I devoured DK’s Science. It’s 500 pages of beautifully illustrated, magazine-sized nuggets and articles. For four hours I didn’t stop, jumping all over the place, scribbling down questions in a notebook.

(I love picture books, and especially those by Doris Kingsley. I have them any number of topics. When I was a primary school teacher, I used to love the school library because it was stacked full of visual, easy to understand non-fiction books.)

I’ve always thought people learn best by going in layers. If you want to learn English history, start with picture books/movies/stories that bring it alive and give you an overview, and then repeat the process in a higher level of complexity (Dimbleby’s 7 Ages of Britain for e.g), and then again and so on.

The next layer of complexity was Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I’ve heard praise for this book from every quarter for years, so I realise I’m very late to the party in saying that it is wonderful. (See Dave’s post earlier this year) Bryson’s book is packed full of wonderful nuggets and little biographies of extraordinary characters.

Here are some of the little facts I learned:

  • The average adult is carrying around 2 kg of dead skin
  • If the history of the planet is 24 hours, humans appear on the scene 1 minute and 17 seconds before midnight
  • Eighty per cent of the world biomass are microbes
  • Because of the Earth’s spin the west coast of the Pacific is a foot and a half higher than the east coast (like the little wave of water you’d get if you suddenly tugged a tray of water towards you)
  • Lightning heats the air to 28,000 C, which is hotter than the surface of the Sun
  • An atom’s nucleus is tiny in proportionate to the rest of the atom. ‘Like a fly in a cathedral’ as it has been described, except the fly is thousands of times heavier than the cathedral.
  • The North Star might have burnt out 680 years ago
  • Unlike most illustrations in science text books, the planets are extraordinarily far away from each other. If the Earth was the size of a pea, Jupiter would be 300 metres away. Seen from the surface of Pluto, the sun is a pinprick in the night sky.
  • Mastadon means ‘nipple teeth’
  • To see the atoms in a drop of water with the naked eye, you’d have to magnify the drop until it was 24 km across.
  • If you managed to drill a hole to the centre of the earth and dropped a brick down it, (presuming you could dig such a hole, and that our brick wouldn’t incinerate long before reaching the centre of something that wouldn’t melt). You’d expect the brick to take 45 mins to drop the 6,370 km to the centre, but in fact it would slow as the gravitational effect of the mass above the brick took effect, until by the time it got to the centre it would be floating.
I also learnt that far from being ‘invented’ by the British, DNA wasn’t even discovered by Watson & Crick in 1953. In fact it had been known about since 1869 when it was discovered by Friedrich Miescher, a Swiss scientist, who was looking at pus in surgical bandages. Rather, Watson (who was actually American) & Crick worked out it’s molecular structure – still, I’m happy to admit, quite an achievement.

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Is Anything Truly Random?

I hated science lessons at school.  Looking back, it was miraculous that the science curriculum and those that taught it managed to make a subject so fascinating – a subject with such universal appeal to the inquisitive minds of children – so dull.  I imagine my science teachers put this skill to use in their downtime by going to parties and turning all the wine into water.

Bill Bryson expresses a similar concern in his Introduction to A Short History of Nearly Everything.  In writing this book, Bryson produced the grand daddy of popular science books but beyond him there is a wealth of non-fiction science books aimed not just at Physics MSCs, but rather anyone that has a healthy mind and enjoys asking the question “why?”.

Marcus Chown - We Need To Talk About Kelvin Front CoverThe more science I read, the more I appreciate it’s place in the arts alongside philosophy and psychology.  Marcus Chown, in We Need To Talk About Kelvin – What Everyday Things Tell Us About The Universe, attempts to help us rekindle our child-like enthusiasm for intellectual discovery by describing how normal things can prove mind-blowing concepts.  And so on to the question at hand; a question which is seemingly philosophical in nature.

It could easily be argued that nothing is random. Much of human behaviour has been shown to be predetermined by our genes and our behaviour.  A coin toss is caused by gravity, resistance, the velocity and angle of the throw and the detail of the surface it lands on.  One could argue that if these causes could be perfectly simulated then the result could be predicted.  Due to technological limitations we are not able to produce such a perfect simulation but it is a compelling argument nonetheless.

What does Chown say to the question ‘is anything truly random’?  His answer is: “yes, God plays dice”.  What everyday thing proves this according to Chown?  Your reflection in a window.

Imagine looking through a window when the light outside is low.  You can see your reflection in the glass, but you can also see beyond it to the other side of the window.  Let’s say that the glass appears 60% opaque.  So what?  Well, some light is reflecting back and some is continuing through.  This makes sense if light is a wave, like a ripple in a lake spreading out and continuing despite hitting a small floating obstacle.  However, light is also a stream of photon particles, each particle identical.  Commons sense and observation tell us that the overall effect is stable; so how is it that some photons pass through and some reflect?

It took the genius of Einstein to realise that this dilemma was a bomb-shell dropped into the laws of physics.  The only logical answer is that 40% of the particles are being reflected back.  Giving that each photon is identical, each photon has a 40% chance of being reflected and a 60% chance of continuing straight through.  This means it is impossible to predict what a single photon will do when it reaches the glass; it effectively has to ‘decide’ itself.  Unlike the lack of computing power required to simulate a coin toss, predicting the behaviour of a photon when it reaches the glass is not a practical issue.  It is impossible to predict because the photon’s beahviour is completely and utterly random; effect without cause.  It’s not just light either; at the microscopic level, the entire world is governed by chance.

But this is just the beginning of the madness.  Chown goes on to draw further conclusions from this everyday observation.  It can also be demonstrated that light is both a wave and a particle, that a single photon can be in two places doing two things at once, and that particles can break the speed of light by instantaneously influencing another particle at any distance.


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Opulence and Arrogance

Imagine a society where the ruling class are so wealthy that they gain political power and influence not by accumulating money or land, but by proving themselves in philosophical and religious debate.  Sounds a bit like Voltaire’s utopian vision of El Dorado doesn’t it?  Welcome to Ancient Greece.

The Antikythera MechanismI previously reviewed ‘Decoding the Heavens’, a book which tells the story of how the puzzle of the Antikythera Mechanism (an ancient clockwork computer discovered in a shipwreck) was solved.  Without giving too much away about the mechanism itself, here’s some more details:

  • Its complexity means it probably took several generations of work from master crafstmen to perfect.
  • It contained state of the art astronomical data and would have therefore required input from a top astronomer.
  • It was contained in an ornate box and had inscription on its inputs and outputs which were ‘idiot’s guide’ instructions on how to use it.

From the last bullet point, we can deduce that this is no astronomer’s tool; it is a luxury item.  It seems inconceivable that the Ancient Greeks could make such a machine and yet it never occurred to them that the technology could be useful if applied elsewhere.  Amongst the aristocrats of this society, it was more important to use technology as a religious or philosophical demonstration than to apply the technology for more practical outcomes.  In Europe, it was the invention and development of clockwork that sparked the industrial revolution.

An Ancient Greek also invented the steam engine (to disprove one of Aristotle’s theories) and again they failed to apply the technology to industry.  It’s difficult to get one’s head around a society with such radically different values.

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Stranger Than Fishing

Decoding the Heavens - Solving the mystery of the world's first computer by Jo MarchantOne of the joys of non-fiction is that some real life stories can be as exciting and unlikely as the most imaginative of stories spun. ‘Decoding the Heavens’ by Jo Marchant, despite the terrible new age self-helpesque title, tells the story of the Antikythera Mechanism. This ancient mechanical artefact was fished up from an Ancient Greek ship wreck at the turn of the 20th century, and stunned the world because such a complex machine should never have existed from this period. There are three threads to this story: the human interest side of those that worked to discover its purpose, the science of what the machine does, and the history of how and why such a thing could possibly exist.

‘Decoding the Heavens’ is a compelling account of those that sought to work out just what this 2,000 year old clockwork computer was for. From its discovery in 1901 to 2006, there is politics, betrayal and intense rivalry as various scientists and mathematicians dedicated their lives racing to be named as the genius that could finally reveal its purpose. The book is accessible to those without scientific knowledge, though some (like me) may end up skipping some of the explanations of mathematical ratios.

Whilst Marchant succeeds with telling the scientific and human interest sides of the story, I found myself wanting more than the relatively paltry chapter that she includes speculating as to the original purpose of this fascinating machine and its context in Ancient Greek society. What makes the Antikythera Mechanism so extraordinary – what drives the entire story – is the absurdity of its existence in the first place. If the Ancient Greeks were capable of creating such complex devices, why was the technology never applied to other machines? Why did it die with their society? Clockwork technology was not reinvented until after the dark ages – just think, mankind could be almost 2,000 years more advanced had the knowledge survived.


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